The night of the grasshoppers begins at Khruu June’s house. Villagers start showing up with lamps strapped to their foreheads like miners, hauling empty bamboo baskets. We climb into a pick-up driven by June’s husband and set out through the deepening dusk. The sunset is spectacular, with thunderheads glowing an icy pink-and-blue in the darkening sky.
The truck rattles past the reservoir, leaves the lights of the village behind and heads out into vast, dark fields of Thailand. After a while, even in the dark, I can see that the fields we have reached are full of sugarcane. Abruptly, the pick-up shudders to a halt and everyone pours out. A gate that leads into the sugarcane fields is tightly padlocked. The truck can go no further. Everyone begins to climb under or over the gate, so I do, too. On foot, we pass a shack with no electricity. The three children who live there are standing out front in the pitch dark, silently watching us slip past by like a throng of ghosts rustling the sugar cane. We pass a pond, and we are still tightly clumped together. And then, as if a secret signal has been given, the group scatters in all directions.
The sugarcane towers above us. Most people wear headlamps or carry flashlights. Some carry flickering candles, which they hold up to the sugarcane stalks, in search of grasshoppers. When a grasshopper is spotted, it is plucked from its perch and thrust into the basket. Sweat pours down my body and heat lightning flickers in the distance. The basket I carry grows noisier as the night goes on, rattling with the sound of grasshoppers hopping madly inside. Somebody’s candle starts a small fire which somebody else stamps out. Among the boys, there seems to be a competition for who can capture the most grasshoppers. We roam the fields, which seem endless. After a couple of hours, I begin to feel claustrophobic, trapped among the towering sugarcane, yearning for open space, for a place to stop moving, to rest, and cool down. I’m wondering if we will ever find our way back out again.
Then a quiet young village girl comes and takes me by the hand. She leads me gently and doesn’t bother speaking, as if I am a deaf-mute. Now she parts the sugarcane stalks, bends over and peers inside. She turns and smiles up at me, beckoning. I bend over and peer into the thicket of stalks. Three baby birds are nestled in a row on a stalk, serenading us in the night. We pause in our attack on the grasshoppers and listen to their delicate, trilling chorus.
The reward for all this labor comes later, back at Khruu June’s house. It does not involve money, but food. Baskets upon baskets of grasshoppers are dumped into woks sizzling with oil. The taste is salty and crunchy, similar to popcorn. Some of the villagers won’t eat the grasshoppers until they’ve pulled their stomachs out, because the stomach tastes bitter. I learn, after a few tries, that I won’t eat them until I’ve plucked off their razor-sharp legs.
Also posted on my blog Strange Islands